The Transboundary Haze Pollution Act: What It Can and Cannot Do.

Hansard

The Transboundary Haze Pollution Act was introduced to Parliament on 7th July 2014. It was debated by the House on 4th August 2014, committed to a Committee of the Whole House and passed after its Third Reading a day later on 5th August 20141. The Act came into effect on 25th September 20142.

The introduction of the Bill to the House came a year after Singapore suffered its worst incidence of air pollution caused by haze, with the highest recorded PSI levels the country had ever experienced3. In his opening speech to the House on the occasion of the Second Reading of the Bill4, then Minister for the Environment and Water Resources, Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, noted that the a legislative approach to Singapore’s response to the haze was necessitated not so much by Indonesia’s lack of environmental laws as by their lack of ability in enforcing these laws.

Part II of the Act sets out commercial or other entities’ liabilities for transboundary air pollution5. The provisions contained therein make it an offence for entities to be involved in causing haze. The law extends the scope of entities or companies covered under the Act to include those that may not be directly causing haze but are in some way involved in the management of another entity or company that owns land and contributes to causing haze from there. Furthermore, the legislation also specifies that it shall be a statutory duty of such companies to ensure compliance. Entities that have been found to have acted in contravention of the Act are also liable to provide compensation if there is evidence that the haze caused by them has affected any “person, property or the environment” in Singapore.

A key feature of the Act is the extraterritorial nature of the extent and reach of the legislation. The Act applies not only to companies based within Singapore but also to foreign-owned ones. Minister Balakrishnan assured the House that, “This exercise of extra-territorial jurisdiction under this Bill is in line with international law, specifically the objective territorial principle.” However, the effectiveness of the extraterritoriality of the Act is questionable. Then Non-Constituency Member of Parliament, Mr Yee Jenn Jong of the Workers’ Party, rose to point out6 that Singapore has no extradition treaty with Indonesia and that, “If the accused person fails to appear in court, a warrant of arrest is issued under Section 17. This will likely have little or no effect if the person is not in Singapore.”

Other practical constraints limit the effectiveness of the Act. In order to prosecute perpetrators, the Government of Singapore would have to be able to accurately identify them according to the lands on which forest fires were started and spread to. However, this can only be done if Indonesia agrees to share cartographic information with Singapore. Even if the Indonesian authorities agreed to do so, the prevailing complexity of forested land tenure issues in Indonesia would render it onerous to distinguish the rightful owners of the land in question from commercial perpetrators if indeed such distinctions can and ought to be made in the first place. This was a point raised by the then Nominated Member of Parliament, Ms Faizah Jamal, who represented environmental interests in the House.

During the debate on the Bill, MPs from all sides of the House recognised that the key to solving the woes of transboundary haze lies beyond a legislative approach. Member of Parliament for Marine Parade, Associate Professor Fatimah Lateef said, “Education must continue. Commitment must be inculcated. Mutual trust must continue to be strengthened.” Mr Yee of the Workers’ Party urged the Government to not only look at how forest fires can be prevented but to extend our diplomatic efforts to helping Indonesia develop “a more sustainable agro-industry.” The most sobering view, however, came from Ms Jamal, who proclaimed that the Government has to take the lead in changing our approach to the bigger picture of consumerism for the better. She said, “The ordinary citizen as consumers should be made aware that they have the power to change a business model that has thus far been more concerned about profits than about people or planet, provided citizens start by taking back responsibility for their own part in the problem. It is no use playing the blame game when there is no sense of personal responsibility for the consumer choices that we make individually and collectively as a country.” Today, with the greying of our skies once again, local companies took to improving their consumption practices with much support from the public.

Two things are certain. From an environmentalist’s perspective, it should not have to take a bad bout of haze for us to improve the way we use the environment. And, from a political and legal perspective, it will not take a single Act of Parliament alone to prevent these bouts from recurring to colour our skies grey once again.
References:

[1] Parliament of Singapore. (2014). Bills Introduced. Singapore: Parliament of Singapore. Retrieved from http://www.parliament.gov.sg/publications/bills-introduced.

[2] National Environment Agency. (2014). Parliament Statements. Singapore: Government of Singapore. Retrieved from http://www.nea.gov.sg/corporate-functions/newsroom/parliament.

[3] Velasco, E. & Rastan, S. (2015). Air quality in Singapore during the 2013 smoke-haze episode over the Strait of Malacca: Lessons learned. Sustainable Cities and Society, 17, 122-131.

[4] Parliament of Singapore. (2014). Transboundary Haze Pollution Bill. Official Reports -Parliamentary Debates (Hansard), 92, Sitting 10. Retrieved from http://sprs.parl.gov.sg/search/topic.jsp?currentTopicID=00006470-WA&currentPubID=00006417-WA&topicKey=00006417-WA.00006470-WA_2%2Bid-2242cb2e-c3e5-4597-9bfa-bbaa6c57a231%2B.

[5] Transboundary Haze Pollution Act 2014 (Act 24 of 2014).

[6] Parliament of Singapore. (2014). Transboundary Haze Pollution Bill. Official Reports -Parliamentary Debates (Hansard), 92, Sitting 11. Retrieved from http://sprs.parl.gov.sg/search/topic.jsp?currentTopicID=00006478-WA&currentPubID=00006482-WA&topicKey=00006482-WA.00006478-WA_1%2Bid-4067f594-ea00-4e20-ac4b-1ad5493c5b74%2B.